Authors: Alex Connor
You have it?
In here,’ the younger man replied, holding up the sack
Gesturing for him to put it in a nearby sink, the man handed him a wedge of money. ‘You must tell no one—
We never did before. Why would we now?
Nodding, the Parisian showed them to the door, glancing out and then beckoning to the men. ‘Say nothing to no one. Betray me and you’ll hang.
And you?’ the grave robber replied. ‘They’ll do worse if they find out what you’ve done.
London, the present day
The sweating, grotesquely fat man checked the address twice, looked round, then moved into the building. From the street it had looked like every other shop, the words MAMA GALA’S painted in large red letters at the top of the window, a selection of herbs, breads, nuts and pulses set out in an alluring display. Inside, a heavy African woman was serving a customer, laughing as she wrapped some arrowroot, wind chimes tingling eerily by the open door.
Nervous, the fat man walked over to her: ‘I came to see Emile Dwappa.’
Her smile faded. ‘No one called that here.’
‘I was told to come here.’ The man leaned towards the woman, who took a step back. ‘Mr Dwappa sent for me himself.’
Suddenly she relaxed, one fleshy black hand pointing to a door. ‘Go through there, right to the back. Then turn
left and go up the stairs.’ She looked him up and down, laughing. ‘You’re one fat white man. One sweaty, fat white man.’
Embarrassed, he moved on, opening the door and walking into the large back room beyond. Immediately an unfamiliar smell hit him, and he flinched as he saw carcass after carcass of dried meat hanging on butchers’ hooks along one side of the wall. Flanks of dark red flesh, ribboned with yellow fat, swung in a breeze from the open back door; other smaller packages piled up on high shelves. As the man stared up at the butchery, a piercing screech sounded behind him.
Spinning round, he almost lost his footing as he stumbled against a large cage, a macaw flapping its wings at him, its yellow eyes fixed, hostile.
Hurriedly he moved on, passing more cages. Some held snakes, others small, feral monkeys looking out disconsolately, one peeing between the bars. The urine hit the floor by the man’s feet, its stench mixing queasily with the smell of dead meat and the ammonia of bird droppings.
Stumbling up the steep, narrow flight of steps, the obese man clambered into the darkness above. Grunting with the effort, he waited at the top of the stairs for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. Every window was covered by blinds, daylight almost obliterated, and against a far wall was a sofa with two figures sitting on it, barely discernible in the dimness.
As the man walked in further, he could see a table on the left, the overwhelming scent of oleander and musk making him retch. Sitting at the table, a wizened black woman was cutting some herbs, a pestle and mortar beside her. At her feet sat a small, silent child, its arms curled around its knees. From below, the man could hear the sound of jazz music, punctuated by the screech of the caged birds and a monkey banging its feeding bowl against the bars.
The atmosphere was rancid, his curiosity forcing him on towards the sofa and the seated figures. Palms wet with sweat, he peered into the gloom. Then suddenly a match was struck, an African face coming into full view as Emile Dwappa leaned forward to light the candles in front of him. He was no more than thirty-five, his narrow head unexpectedly boyish, his eyes light against the black skin. Beside him lounged a woman, naked from the waist upwards, her left hand resting on one uncovered breast.
Dwappa smiled. ‘Mr Shaw …?’
The fat man nodded.
‘Take a seat.’
Jimmy Shaw eased himself on to an uncomfortable chair opposite the couple. Uneasy, he wiped his forehead and his palms, laughing nervously.
‘It’s hot in here.’
‘Central heating,’ Dwappa replied. ‘I like it hot.’
Listlessly the woman moved, her skirt falling open and revealing the inside of her right thigh. Running his tongue over his dry lips, the fat man stared, transfixed, his heavy
suit damp under the armpits, his shirt collar rubbing his neck raw.
‘You wanted to see me?’
Facing Dwappa, Jimmy Shaw tried to remember what he had been told. Emile Dwappa was a businessman, with a reputation so sinister even the hard cases in Brixton were afraid of him. Rumours abounded and followed him like a gaggle of black geese. In the three years he had been in London, Dwappa had built up a terrifying reputation. You didn’t cross him – you didn’t even go anywhere near him – unless you wanted something very specific. Or worse, he wanted something very specific from
‘So where is it?’
The fat man wriggled in his seat. ‘Spain.’
‘I want it. Here,’ Dwappa said. ‘I have a buyer for the skull. How soon can you get it?’
Shaw shook his head, trying to think up a lie and wondering at the same time how Dwappa had heard about the Goya skull so quickly. The same skull which someone had already approached him about. In the criminal undercurrent of the art world, news always travelled quickly, but this speed had been even more remarkable than usual. In the last twenty-four hours two dealers, an Iranian collector and a museum curator had contacted Shaw. And one was offering a king’s ransom for Francisco Goya’s skull.
For over two hundred years the skull had been missing. All that was known for certain was that it had been taken
around the time of Goya’s death in Bordeaux. No other facts were confirmed and the famous skull – emblematic of artistic genius – had vanished. Until now.
A failed art dealer, Shaw knew that there was a thriving trade in art relics. In the past, various and suspect parts of the saints had changed hands for money. Sometimes the Church paid up, wanting to retain a relic or to purchase one for a cathedral in an area which had need of a spiritual revival. But as religion lost its grip, secular art dealing became big business. In the decades which followed, sales and auction prices exploded in an orgasm of greed, and third-rate dealers like Jimmy Shaw found themselves edged out onto the shady periphery of the art world. Forced away from the high-octane embrace of London and New York, for men with more greed than morals a greasy slide into crime was inevitable.
And so Jimmy Shaw had become a handler. At first he had fenced stolen paintings, but gradually his slyness – and his contacts – promoted him into the select rank of men who stole to order. Collectors as far apart as Paris and Bahrain called on him to either find or thieve works of art. Naturally Shaw did none of the actual physical work; he had minions to do that for him. Men who needed money or a favour. Or, more likely, men who had something to hide. Something Shaw had winkled out of one of his other contacts. With impressive connections to old lags, runners, and gallery assistants looking to supplement their poor wages, Shaw had built up a network around London, expanding into Europe and even the
USA. Physically repulsive, his sole companion was money and the whores it could buy. As his criminality had extended he had become bloated in body and amorality, normal life forever curtailed by his reputation and appearance.
But who needed respectability when they had a fortune? And Jimmy Shaw could see a
fortune waiting for him. Goya’s skull had been found – let the bear-baiting begin. Of course he realised that competition for the relic would be intense. Everyone would want to own the skull. Collectors, dealers, museums – all of them grubbing around in the artistic mire to pluck an opal out of the shit.
The power and fame of Francisco Goya had never waned. His paintings were reproduced endlessly, his pictures and etchings revered, the notorious Black Paintings as frightening and compelling as they had always been. Oh yes, Shaw thought, he would make a fortune out of Goya’s skull. A fortune Emile Dwappa wasn’t going to snatch out of his hands.
‘It might be a rumour.’
Shaw coughed. ‘The finding of the Goya skull – it might just be a rumour. People have claimed that it was found before. But they were always fakes—’
‘I want it.’
I bet you do. You want it to sell it on – and then what do I get? A handler’s fee? Fuck off, Shaw thought to himself. The skull was
He could remember several years earlier when a supposed strand of Leonardo da Vinci’s hair had come on to the black market. Within hours Shaw had contacted collectors overseas, whipping up a frantic auction. In the end the relic was purchased by an Italian connoisseur in Milan. Hair, fingers or other bones from such legendary figures rarely came on the market, which was why they were so sought after. But a
– Francisco Goya’s skull – would set a record.
Curious, Dwappa leaned forward in his seat. ‘I’ll pay you for bringing it to me.’
‘I don’t know if I can—’
‘You said it was in Spain.’
Fuck! Shaw thought. Why had he said that? He was nervous, that was why, but he couldn’t afford to be. Dwappa had a reputation, but so did he. A reputation for cunning. Perhaps he could outsmart the African.
‘I’ll ask around for you.’
‘What do you weigh?’
Shaw blinked, wrong-footed. ‘Huh?’
‘What do you weigh?’
‘Three hundred and forty pounds.’
Shaw shifted around awkwardly on the hard chair. OK, so I’m a fat, ugly bastard, he thought – but I’m the one who’ll end up with the skull.
‘You have to get the skull for me. I have a buyer.’
Only one? Shaw thought, unimpressed. His confidence was beginning, slowly, to return. He knew that Emile
Dwappa had never dealt in art before; he was naive. Perhaps a lot easier to cheat than he had first suspected.
‘As I say, I’ll ask around. But it might be difficult.’
‘I’ll pay you well,’ Dwappa replied.
Shaw allowed a glint of smugness to enter his tone. ‘I’ve already got plenty of money.’
‘I heard that.’
‘And I don’t need any more work.’
‘I heard that too.’
Smiling, Shaw turned his puffy face to the woman, then glanced back at Dwappa, who was watching him avidly. He could recognise something in the amber eyes: a cold heat and a total lack of empathy. Be careful, Shaw told himself. Be careful and you can still come out of this the winner.
‘Mr Dwappa,’ he went on pleasantly, ‘all I know is that the skull’s been found in Spain. That’s all the information I have.’
‘Who has it?’
Shaw shrugged. ‘I don’t know …’
He was lying. The man now in possession of Goya’s skull was an art historian called Leon Golding. An aesthetic intellectual who had lived and worked in Madrid all his life.
‘I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.’
Dwappa’s expression was unreadable. ‘You have to get that skull.’
‘Look, even if I could, it would take time. It’s not as easy as it sounds—’
‘You’ve stolen before—’
But not the skull of Goya!
’ Shaw whined, wriggling on his seat. ‘Even if I
find it – which I doubt – I couldn’t do it in a couple of days.’
‘I’ll give you time.’
Wrong-footed, Shaw took a moment to reply. ‘Like I said, I don’t know anything—’
In one fluid movement the African lurched forward and struck. Shaw felt the blow and reeled back, then screamed with pain – Dwappa had driven a knife through the back of his hand, pinning it to the table underneath.
’ Shaw gabbled, blood spurting out from the pale, fatty flesh. ‘
‘Get the Goya skull,’ Dwappa said, leaning forward and twisting the knife around in the wound, ripping up the flesh.
Screaming again, Shaw felt tears come into his eyes, his fingernails scratching at the table top in desperation as Dwappa’s hand moved towards the knife again. ‘
’ he shrieked. ‘I’ll get the skull. I’ll get it!’
Leaning back in his seat, Dwappa watched the fat man’s face, greasy with fear. Sweat was soaking into his expensive suit, his flabby legs shaking.
‘You said the skull was in Spain?’
The fat man nodded. ‘Yes! Yes! In Spain.’
‘You know who has it?’
Despite his terror, Shaw’s guile was automatic. ‘I’m not sure. I think so … Anyway, I can find out.’
‘Good. Get the skull. For your own sake.’
Shaking uncontrollably, Shaw flinched when he saw the African raise his hand again. But he was only beckoning to someone across the room and a moment later the old woman walked over to him. Without saying a word, she handed Dwappa a paper with a ground-up substance on it. Behind him Shaw could hear the little girl laughing softly … Quickly, Dwappa pulled out the knife, then poured the soothing white powder over the wound in Shaw’s hand. His head slumped forward, the powder clotting and turning red as it mingled with his blood.
‘You can go now.’
The words took a while to register in Shaw’s brain, and then he stood up, swaying on his feet for an instant before he headed for the stairs. Holding his bloodied hand to his chest, he paused, but didn’t dare look back. The room undulated with heat and the oppressive odour of herbs and sweat. From the couch came the sound of the woman moaning and from below echoed the scrabbling of the monkeys’ claws.
As Shaw staggered downstairs, a sudden, hot burst of wind blew in from the back yard, making the macaw screech and claw at the cage bars and the snakes rise up and hiss. It shook the meat carcasses so violently that they lurched and jerked, swinging on their butchers’ hooks like a row of skinned men.
The two Golding brothers stood beside the grave in a dry cemetery outside Madrid. The heat was building, the sun unhindered by clouds, the brass plaque on the coffin glistening like a lizard’s eye.
‘There’s something I have to tell you,’ Leon said, his voice so low Ben had to strain to catch it.
They were attending the funeral of the woman who had raised them. Head bowed, Ben could feel the sun burning the skin on the back of his neck and longed for the cool drizzle of London. He could sense Leon’s excitement as his brother stood beside him, the nervous scuffling of his feet, the intermittent hoarse coughs. Was he taking his medication? Ben wondered, stealing a glance at Leon, who was gazing, unblinking, into the grave. He wondered momentarily how his brother would cope with the loss of Detita – if the old woman’s death would herald another breakdown. But apparently Leon had something
else on his mind, something so important that it overshadowed the funeral of a woman he had loved since childhood.